No Hero by E.W. Hornung
Chapter III. First Blood
Mrs. Lascelles and I exchanged our bows. For a dangerous woman there was a rather striking want of study in her attire. Over the garment which I believe is called a "rain-coat," the night being chilly, she had put on her golf-cape as well, and the effect was a little heterogeneous. It also argued qualities other than those for which I was naturally on the watch. Of the lady's face I could see even less than of Bob's, for the hood of the cape was upturned into a cowl, and even in Switzerland the stars are only stars. But while I peered she let me hear her voice, and a very rich one it was--almost deep in tone--the voice of a woman who would sing contralto.
"Have you really been fighting?" she asked, in a way that was either put on, or else the expression of a more understanding sympathy than one usually provoked; for pity and admiration, and even a helpless woman's envy, might all have been discovered by an ear less critical and more charitable than mine.
"Like anything!" answered Bob, in his unaffected speech.
"Until they knocked me out," I felt bound to add, "and that, unfortunately, was before very long."
"You must have been dreadfully wounded!" said Mrs. Lascelles, raising her eyes from my sticks and gazing at me, I fancied, with some intentness; but at her expression I could only guess.
"Bowled over on Spion Kop," said Bob, "and fairly riddled as he lay."
"But only about the legs, Mrs. Lascelles," I explained; "and you see I didn't lose either, so I've no cause to complain. I had hardly a graze higher up."
"Were you up there the whole of that awful day?" asked Mrs. Lascelles, on a low but thrilling note.
"I'd got to be," said I, trying to lighten the subject with a laugh. But Bob's tone was little better.
"So he went staggering about among his men," he must needs chime in, with other superfluities, "for I remember reading all about it in the papers, and boasting like anything about having known you, Duncan, but feeling simply sick with envy all the time. I say, you'll be a tremendous hero up here, you know! I'm awfully glad you've come. It's quite funny, all the same. I suppose you came to get bucked up? He couldn't have gone to a better place, could he, Mrs. Lascelles?"
"Indeed he could not. I only wish we could empty the hotel and fill every bed with our poor wounded!"
I do not know why I should have felt so much surprised. I had made unto myself my own image of Mrs. Lascelles, and neither her appearance, nor a single word that had fallen from her, was in the least in keeping with my conception. Prepared for a certain type of woman, I was quite confounded by its unconventional embodiment, and inclined to believe that this was not the type at all. I ought to have known life better. The most scheming mind may well entertain an enthusiasm for arms, genuine enough in itself, at a martial crisis, and a natural manner is by no means incompatible with the cardinal vices. That manner and that enthusiasm were absolutely all that I as yet knew in favour of this Mrs. Lascelles; but they were enough to cause me irritation. I wished to be honest with somebody; let me at least be honestly inimical to her. I took out my cigarette-case, and when about to help myself, handed it, with a vile pretence at impulse, to Mrs. Lascelles instead.
Mrs. Lascelles thanked me, in a higher key, but declined.
"Don't you smoke?" I asked blandly.
"Ah! then I wasn't mistaken. I thought I saw two cigarettes just now."
Indeed, I had first smelt and afterward discovered the second cigarette smouldering on the ground. Bob was smoking his still. The chances were that they had both been lighted at the same time; therefore the other had been thrown away unfinished at my approach. And that was one more variation from the type of my confident preconceptions.
Young Robin had meanwhile had a quick eye on us both, and the stump of his own cigarette was glowing between a firmer pair of lips than I had looked for in that boyish face.
"It's so funny," said he (but there was no fun in his voice), "the prejudice some people have against ladies smoking. Why shouldn't they? Where's the harm?"
Now there is no new plea to be advanced on either side of this eternal question, nor is it one upon which I ever felt strongly, but just then I felt tempted to speak as though I did. I will not now dissect my motive, but it was vaguely connected with my mission, and not unrighteous from that standpoint. I said it was not a question of harm at all, but of what one admired in a woman, and what one did not: a man loved to look upon a woman as something above and beyond him, and there could be no doubt that the gap seemed a little less when both were smoking like twin funnels. That, I thought, was the adverse point of view; I did not say that it was mine.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Bob Evers, with the faintest coldness in his tone, though I fancied he was fuming within, and admired both his chivalry and his self-control. "To me it's quite funny. I call it sheer selfishness. We enjoy a cigarette ourselves; why shouldn't they? We don't force them to be teetotal, do we? Is it bad form for a lady to drink a glass of wine? You mightn't bicycle once, might you, Mrs. Lascelles? I daresay Captain Clephane doesn't approve of that yet!"
"That's hitting below the belt," said I, laughing. "I wasn't giving you my opinion, but only the old-fashioned view of the matter. I wish you'd take one, Mrs. Lascelles, or I shall think I've been misunderstood all round!"
"No, thank you, Captain Clephane. That old-fashioned feeling is infectious."
"Then I will," cried Bob, "to show there's no ill-feeling. You old fire-eater, I believe you just put up the argument to change the conversation. Wouldn't you like a chair for those game legs?"
"No, I've got to use them in moderation. I was going to have a stroll when I spotted you at last."
"Then we'll all take one together," cried the genial old Bob once more. "It's a bit cold standing here, don't you think, Mrs. Lascelles? After you with the match!"
But I held it so long that he had to strike another, for I had looked on Mrs. Lascelles at last. It was not an obviously interesting face, like Catherine's, but interest there was of another kind. There was nothing intellectual in the low brow, no enthusiasm for books and pictures in the bold eyes, no witticism waiting on the full lips; but in the curve of those lips and the look from those eyes, as in the deep chin and the carriage of the hooded head, there was something perhaps not lower than intellect in the scale of personal equipment. There was, at all events, character and to spare. Even by the brief glimmer of a single match I could see that (and more) for myself. Then came a moment's interval before Bob struck his light, and in that moment her face changed. As I saw it next, it appealed, it entreated, until the second match was flung away. And the appeal was to such purpose that I do not think I was five seconds silent.
"And what do you do with yourself up here all day? I mean you hale people; of course, I can only potter in the sun."
The question, perhaps, was better in intention than in tact. I did not mean them to take it to themselves, but Bob's answer showed that it was open to misconstruction.
"Some people climb," said he; "you'll know them by their noses. The glaciers are almost as bad, though, aren't they, Mrs. Lascelles? Lots of people potter about the glaciers. It's rather sport in the serracs; you've got to rope. But you'll find lots more loafing about the place all day, reading Tauchnitz novels, and watching people on the Matterhorn through the telescope. That's the sort of thing, isn't it, Mrs. Lascelles?"
She also had misunderstood the drift of my unlucky question. But there was nothing disingenuous in her reply. It reminded me of her eyes, as I had seen them by the light of the first match.
"Mr. Evers doesn't say that he is a climber himself, Captain Clephane; but he is a very keen one, and so am I. We are both beginners, so we have begun together. It's such fun. We do some little thing every day; to-day we did the Schwarzee. You won't be any wiser, and the real climbers wouldn't call it climbing, but it means three thousand feet first and last. To-morrow we are going to the Monte Rosa hut. There is no saying where we shall end up, if this weather holds."
In this fashion Mrs. Lascelles not only made me a contemptuous present of information which I had never sought, but tacitly rebuked poor Bob for his gratuitous attempt at concealment. Clearly, they had nothing to conceal; and the hotel talk was neither more nor less than hotel talk. There was, nevertheless, a certain self-consciousness in the attitude of either (unless I grossly misread them both) which of itself afforded some excuse for the gossips in my own mind.
Yet I did not know; every moment gave me a new point of view. On my remarking, genuinely enough, that I only wished I could go with them, Bob Evers echoed the wish so heartily that I could not but believe that he meant what he said. On his side, in that case, there could be absolutely nothing. And yet, again, when Mrs. Lascelles had left us, as she did ere long in the easiest and most natural manner, and when we had started a last cigarette together, then once more I was not so sure of him.
"That's rather a handsome woman," said I, with perhaps more than the authority to which my years entitled me. But I fancied it would "draw" poor Bob. And it did.
"Rather handsome!" said he, with a soft little laugh not altogether complimentary to me. "Yes, I should almost go as far myself. Still I don't see how you know; you haven't so much as seen her, my dear fellow."
"Haven't we been walking up and down outside this lighted veranda for the last ten minutes?"
Bob emitted a pitying puff. "Wait till you see her in the sunlight! There's not many of them can stand it, as they get it up here. But she can--like anything!"
"She has made an impression on you, Bob," said I, but in so sedulously inoffensive a manner that his self-betrayal was all the greater when he told me quite hotly not to be an ass.
Now I was more than ten years his senior, and Bob's manners were as charming as only the manners of a nice Eton boy can be; therefore I held my peace, but with difficulty refrained from nodding sapiently to myself. We took a couple of steps in silence, then Bob stopped short. I did the same. He was still a little stern; we were just within range of the veranda lights, and I can see and hear him to this day, almost as clearly as I did that night.
"I'm not much good at making apologies," he began, with rather less grace than becomes an apologist; but it was more than enough for me from Bob.
"Nor I at receiving them, my dear Bob."
"Well, you've got to receive one now, whether you accept it or not. I was the ass myself, and I beg your pardon!"
Somehow I felt it was a good deal for a lad to say, at that age, and with Bob's upbringing and popularity, even though he said it rather scornfully in the fewest words. The scorn was really for himself, and I could well understand it. Nay, I was glad to have something to forgive in the beginning, I with my unforgivable mission, and would have laughed the matter off without another word if Bob had let me.
"I'm a bit raw on the point," said he, taking my arm for a last turn, "and that's the truth. There was a fellow who came out with me, quite a good chap really, and a tremendous pal of mine at Eton, yet he behaved like a lunatic about this very thing. Poor chap, he reads like anything, and I suppose he'd been overdoing it, for he actually asked me to choose between Mrs. Lascelles and himself! What could a fellow do but let the poor old simpleton go? They seem to think you can't be pals with a woman without wanting to make love to her. Such utter rot! I confess I lose my hair with them; but that doesn't excuse me in the least for losing it with you."
I assured him, on the other hand, that his very natural irritability on the subject made all the difference in the world. "But whom," I added, "do you mean by 'them'? Not anybody else in the hotel?"
"Good heavens, no!" cried Bob, finding a fair target for his scorn at last. "Do you think I care twopence what's said or thought by people I never saw in my life before and am never likely to see again? I know how I'm behaving. What does it matter what they think? Not that they're likely to bother their heads about us any more than we do about them."
"You don't know that."
"I certainly don't care," declared my lordly youth, with obvious sincerity. "No, I was only thinking of poor old George Kennerley and people like him, if there are any. I did care what he thought, that is until I saw he was as mad as anything on the subject. It was too silly. I tell you what, though, I'd value your opinion!" And he came to another stop and confronted me again, but this time such a picture of boyish impulse and of innocent trust in me (even by that faint light) that I was myself strongly inclined to be honest with him on the spot. But I only smiled and shook my head.
"Oh, no, you wouldn't," I assured him.
"But I tell you I would!" he cried. "Do you think there's any harm in my going about with Mrs. Lascelles because I rather like her and she rather likes me? I won't condescend to give you my word that I mean none."
What answer could I give? His charming frankness quite disarmed me, and the more completely because I felt that a dignified reticence would have been yet more characteristic of this clean, sweet youth, with his noble unconsciousness alike of evil and of evil speaking. I told him the truth--that there could be no harm at all with such a fellow as himself. And he wrung my hand until he hurt it; but the physical pain was a relief.
Never can I remember going up to bed with a better opinion of another person, or a worse one of myself. How could I go on with my thrice detestable undertaking? Now that I was so sure of him, why should I even think of it for another moment? Why not go back to London and tell his mother that her early confidence had not been misplaced, that the lad did know how to take care of himself, and better still of any woman whom he chose to honour with his bright, pure-hearted friendship? All this I felt as strongly as any conviction I have ever held. Why, then, could I not write it at once to Catherine in as many words?
Strange how one forgets, how I had forgotten in half an hour! The reason came home to me on the stairs, and for the second time.
It had come home first by the light of those two matches, struck outside in the dark part of the deserted terrace. It was not the lad whom I distrusted, but the woman of whose face I had then obtained my only glimpse--that night.
I had known her, after all, in India years before.